Halt and Catch Fire Recap: Who Run the World?

Halt and Catch Fire

One Way or Another
Season 3 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 3, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

Halt and Catch Fire

One Way or Another
Season 3 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Kerry Bishe as Donna, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron. Photo: Tina Rowden/AMC

The first hour of Halt and Catch Fire’s third season spent a lot of time moving pieces into place, establishing groundwork, and rebuilding the characters in California. All that stuff is necessary, but the episode’s weakness lays in the clunkiness of its execution. Now, at least somewhat removed from those opening gestures, the second hour creates space for complication and character development.

One of the highlights of “One Way or Another” is Annabeth Gish’s Diane, who’s pretty much the best. She’s assured and smart; she’s not easy to win over (but she isn’t openly antagonistic); and she brings a useful dynamic to Cameron and Donna’s partnership. Cameron has always been the young, impetuous, intelligent, but blinkered, engineer; Donna’s needed to be the voice of reason and pragmatism. Particularly in their story lines, season two was about building Mutiny from the inside. Diane’s presence doesn’t just add Silicon Valley experience. It also brings someone who can assess Mutiny from a less-emotional perspective. Mutiny is not her baby. (Her baby is Jennifer, who is probably going to need some therapy.)

That’s important, because one of the big questions about this third season is what the Silicon Valley reset does for the show, and how narratively useful it can be to pick everything up and plunk it down somewhere else. Part of that answer is related to the Newsroom problem I laid out in my last recap: We all know this is where the tech boom happens. As time moves forward, it becomes increasingly odd to believe that a Texas-based internet company will take over the world. For the mechanics of telling this story, though, the reset allows HACF to take plucky, unstable, much-beloved Mutiny and make it prove itself among a jostle of larger start-ups. To turn it into something meaningful (or watch it fail by ’88), we need some sense of Mutiny as part of an energetic, growing field. It needs to compete on a bigger stage.

This major element was missing from the first episode and just begins falling into place for episode two. We’ve moved to California, we’re introduced to new genius coder Ryan, we’ve found Joe again, we’ve seen Mutiny’s next hurdles, but — aside from Joe surfing under the Golden Gate Bridge and a few brief external shots that may or may not include eucalyptus trees — there’s not much distinction between where we were last season and where we are now. Diane’s growing role is a good way to populate Silicon Valley with more than just abstract hand-waving about Sand Hill Road.

It’s also encouraging to see HACF tackle the “two women running a company in a male-dominated field” issue right up front, and to do so with such directness. Donna and Cameron’s dinner meeting with the skeezeball VCs effectively situates our two protagonists in their new environment, and helps place Mutiny within the larger tech landscape. However, it also reflects some of the over-telegraphed clunkiness I complained about in episode one — what more obvious way to signal gross ’80s sexism than by having two assholes turn an investment meeting into a play-for-pay hookup? It’s saved by the acting, and in particular, by the two-stage dawning revelation of the underlying motives. Donna’s much faster to see what’s happening, and Cameron, always a little slower to pick up on the social cues, finally sees the truth of things and looks over to Donna with horror. The scene is well-done, and helps us finally understand that HACF’s California is larger than Donna and Cameron’s brain trust.

The turn at the end of this episode — that Mutiny will make a play to buy SwapMeet, the sports memorabilia company with eensy ambitions — is very welcome, and will hopefully expand Silicon Valley’s cast of characters even further. I’m looking forward to seeing a California that’s filled with more than just familiar Texans. Or, to be fair, Texans Diane, Jennifer, and RoboButler.

Speaking of RoboButler, the story lines anchored by Joanie and Cameron continue to surprise me. Though I’ve yet to find any good sense of Joe and Ryan as actual, non-Randian human beings this season, Joanie and her wretched birthday party offer enough pathos to fill in the gaps. Obviously, any excuse to bring in RoboButler is more than welcome (and it sent me off into a brief, happy dream about RoboButler/Mail Robot crossover fanfic). But while HACF has always been a little uneven about balancing work and parenthood in Donna and Gordon’s lives, “One Way or Another” suggests that Joanie may be finally fighting back against the role she’s been too often shoved into in the past. I am so sorry Jennifer was pulling focus, Joanie. At least you got $20 out of it.

I’ve examined the women of HACF, and I suppose that now leaves me with the dubious pack of men who are still hanging around: Gordon, Joe, and Ryan. As presented in “One Way or Another,” the question about Ryan’s future feels like a battle between two worldviews. Either you go with Gordon’s enthusiastic, detail-oriented, small-scale hard work that gets stuff done, or you go with big, visionary ambition that’s more philosophy than it is function. And clearly, in the battle for Ryan’s soul, Steve Jobs just beat out Woz.

And so, HACF reaches (at long last!) an irrevocable break between Joe and Gordon. Gordon’s lawsuit gets to the crux of whether he and Joe were ever friends, and his insistence that he won’t work for Joe at any price seems to dissolve any hope that their relationship will ever right itself. And Joe’s smug direction that Ryan stand up, look at all his Mutiny co-workers, and promptly forget they ever existed does not suggest that he’s done much emotional growing.

Oh Joe. Oh Gordon. Poor Ryan. Will the three of you ever develop human complexity beyond person-shaped outlines meant to represent a debate between Vision and Pragmatism? We saw intriguing hints at the end of season two, but so far in season three, we’re back to cookie cutouts. Fingers crossed for the next episode, and until then, maybe just leave this whole tech revolution thing to the ladies.

Random-Access Memories:

  • The doomed VC dinner is a great scene, thanks in large part to Kerry Bishé’s performance. (Bonus points for the following scene, where she anxious dabs at her more subtle lipstick.) Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the other clutch player in that scene: Cameron’s double-breasted, Diane Keaton–y power suit.
  • As much as I love the thematic potential of MacMillan Utility, “loosely fictionalized version of Norton AntiVirus software” does not make the heart flutter with imagined possibilities. I do like the specific details of Joe’s outreach, though. If he really wants to make something for everyone, it needs to be in grocery stores and malls.
  • So Ryan is really smart, and he seems able to combine vision (like Joe) with coding know-how (like Gordon). But outside of that, who is he? What does he like? Where did he come from? Why did he join Mutiny in the first place? He has one flavor — intense — and I’m waiting for him to transform into something that better resembles a human being.
  • Our last shot of the episode is Gordon making a note for himself about a visual hallucination. Guess we won’t have much of a California honeymoon before things get rough again.